Not at peace with building’s style


Atrium view of United States Institute of Peace, looking toward the Lincoln Memorial. (Timothy Hursley/Courtesy Safdie Architects)

Coming and going, there’s no escaping the work of Moshe Safdie. The Boston-based architect has two huge, expensive, in-your-face government office buildings in the District, and both sit at essential nodal points of city life. His headquarters for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, finished in 2008, dominates the intersection of Florida and New York Avenues in Northwest, putting a fortress-like facade to commuters along one of the busiest corridors of the city. And, now, there’s the U.S. Institute of Peace, the large, sandy-white building with the funny, glass canopy on top that sits opposite the Mall next to the Interstate 66 on-ramp.

Home to a congressionally chartered think tank that studies peace and conflict resolution, the institute is Safdie’s highest-profile project to date in the United States. The building, which won’t officially be dedicated until October, occupies one of the most prized pieces of Mall-front property in Washington, and it joins a distinguished architectural corridor, including Paul Cret’s magnificent Federal Reserve Building and John Russell Pope’s enigmatic pavilion for the American Pharmacists Association. Safdie’s addition to this row of benign and dignified civic structures neither engages nor confronts the established architectural language of institutional Washington. It sits on the Mall like it just blew in from Brussels: smart, clean and bland.

But it marks a momentous rite of passage for one Washington’s lesser-known bureaucracies. Created in 1984 and funded by Congress, the Peace Institute used to rent space in office buildings downtown. Now it has a $186 million trophy home, one quarter of which came from private donations. Permanence is the inherent goal of all government departments and agencies, and the folks at the Peace Institute must be breathing a huge sigh of relief. Their dove-winged aerie has alighted even with budget hawks looking to zero-out nonessential programs, and with ordinary hawks still the loudest voices in almost all foreign policy conversations.

The institute’s design marks yet another low point in Safdie’s long descent into repetitive corporate architecture. Almost a half-century ago, he built one good building, a dynamic housing complex of interchangeable concrete boxes, known as Habitat 67, in Montreal. A student of the brilliant maverick Louis Kahn, Safdie was conversant with the ideals and aspirations of modernism, and he designed an organic, dense urban village of interlocking modular parts. It still gives one a utopian frisson to see its rectangular forms piled up along the St. Lawrence River, and there was immediate interest in building “Habitats” in other cities around the world.

But Safdie had different plans, and whatever utopian ideals he might once have had no longer seem evident in his current work. One of his most recent structures is a gargantuan resort complex in Singapore, which suspends an enormous parklike space from near the top of three, interconnected bent-slab high rises. It is a perfect exercise in the clean lines and megalomania of police-state architecture, and it costs $20 to get into the park.

Safdie knows first and foremost how to get commissions, and he delivers functional, well-dressed buildings. But he has also over-extended himself, exhausted his ideas, grown prone to repetition and all too comfortable substituting cheap symbols for real thinking. The Institute of Peace, with its roof explicitly meant to suggest a dove’s wing, is classic Safdie: An ill-assembled array of rigid boxes, topped by a blunt and almost painfully meretricious reference to the building’s function. He seems unembarrassed by his endless reiteration of the “duck”— a term borrowed from architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who defined it as a building that is its own sign or symbol. Safdie is basically building donut shops that look like donuts, but for a higher price tag and a classier crowd.

With its lazy glass wing dangling rather drunkenly over the main atrium, the Institute of Peace is a duck amuck. If you like it, however, you’ll also enjoy Safdie’s design for the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, which deploys many of the same elements, including the saillike roof design, with similar results. If you like the ATF building — and there’s no evidence anyone does — he also has a few neat knock-offs of that, too.

Safdie’s Institute of Peace, which belongs next to a five-lane highway in Orange County rather than facing the Mall, is worth looking at closely. This is the Valhalla of Think Tank Architecture. If you’re a very good Washington foreign policy expert, and you know all the right people, one day perhaps you, too, might be assumed body and soul into this palace of navel gazing, where along with an impressive business card you will have access to the private cafeteria, sun-drenched lobby spaces, lovely library and, if you’re very lucky, the gorgeous patio outside the well-appointed boardroom, where the Lincoln Memorial feels so close you could almost touch it.

It’s strange how undemocratic so much of this city’s architecture has become. Although the institute will have public areas, where museum exhibits would justify and explain the work of the institute, the building feels closed off from the city. The executive offices, which also face the Lincoln Memorial, are down a long corridor, Versailles-like, making them remote from general circulation. The boardroom is exquisite, high-end everything, and opens on to the Mall-view patio. This is the locus of power, the place hardest to reach but blessed with the most spectacular vistas. The public is kept to the ground floor and the basement, where the exhibition space will expand after funding comes through.

Visitors to the Institute of Peace must enter an outside pavilion on 23rd Street NW, pass through security and then ascend to the main reception level before they are properly in the building. It is a convoluted and disorienting way to enter a building, but it enacts the basic drama of both security and social climbing: Only by suffering a little humiliation can you gain the rewards of being an insider. There is, however, a special porte cochere for real VIPs to enter the building more directly.

To be fair, Safdie has designed a building to meet not just the power needs and hierarchical symbolism of the institute but its genuine purpose, too. The institute’s work involves a lot of teleconferencing, meetings, lectures and panel discussions. Institute leaders argue that the main reason they needed a new home wasn’t expanded office space, or a luxury board room with beautiful patio, but rather the need “to convene” people for important dialogue and discussion. Safdie has provided elegant, front-of-the-plane spaces for endless confabulation, and the institute is clearly relishing its ability to host a busy calendar of events.

One recent gathering, a reception in April for Israeli President Shimon Peres, was held in the Institute’s soaring, glass-encased main atrium space. But the next day, temporary curtains were still hanging around the edges of the atrium. Apparently, the glass-walled space is impossible to secure when someone as important as Peres visits.

It’s a small mistake. So, too, the glass atrium spine that faces west and brings so much light into the cafeteria that you need sunglasses on a bright day. There are plans to figure out some kind of shade system for the space. For all it’s buttoned-down, neat-and-trim dressing, even Safdie’s most corporate work still needs tweaking.

As with any new building, there is an essential, existential question: Do we need it? Which raises an even more essential question: Do we need an Institute of Peace?

A recent editorial in The Washington Post, by peace advocate and educator Colman McCarthy, noted, “the institute’s record has been all gums and no teeth.” And for a simple reason.

“From the beginning, the legislation Congress passed assured that the institute would be forbidden to engage in advocacy or dissent,” wrote McCarthy. “Not a murmur, much less a foreign policy speech, has been heard about U.S. support of dictators in Bolivia, Chile, Iraq, Nicaragua and the Philippines, to cite the short list.”

The institute has defended itself vigorously against that criticism, arguing that the country’s benefits from its research and impartial approach to in­trac­table international problems. The institute helped convene the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel which issued a report in 2006 that helped change Bush administration policy, and it still has extensive operations seeking to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq. The institute also has powerful supporters in Washington, including in the military, arguing that the work it does saves lives and has had a profound, if not always well-trumpeted, impact in some of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Which is the best reason not to build a new building facing the Mall. The institute’s leaders describe their work as a wonkish, sometimes dangerous, but deeply constructive engagement with the problems of broken societies. Safdie has built them a luxury home for a nest of noble policy experts, not a building that reflects the gritty hard work and engagement of peacemaking. The best building to represent that would be no building at all, but the cheapest, most serviceable office space with the lowest overhead.

But by the time you build a trophy building, it’s no longer really about peace, is it? It’s about real estate, cocktail parties, fabulous views and the full-time employment of specialists to manage your congressional affairs, your intergovernmental problems, your outreach and educational activities and, of course, your press and publicity. And so Washington has another government office building.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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